By Detective (Retired) Martin Swirko
Manchester NH Police Department
There is, currently, a Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Manchester, NH. Although it’s a fairly large facility, it is not a full service hospital. This makes New Hampshire, the only state in the country that does not have a full service VA hospital. But, putting that issue aside for this conversation, I will say that when I was on the job here in Manchester, that VA medical center was a full service hospital, and that included a 24 hour, around the clock emergency room. That meant, among other things, as with other hospitals, we were regularly called to the VA for problems, especially in the emergency room.
Now the VA Hospital system has it’s own police force, which is federal, but despite that, we (Manchester Police) were regularly called to the VA in Manchester for any number of reasons, but most calls back then were to the Emergency Room there for disorderly or assaultive patients. Sometimes the VA Police would find a patient in possession of unlawful drugs, and they’d call us to take custody of the drugs and charge that person accordingly.
One night I was working a 330-1200 AM evening shift and I was sent up to the VA Emergency Room for a disorderly subject. I was in a one man car, so a back up officer was sent, but he wasn’t too close by. Therefore, when I got to the ER, I got there quite a few minutes before my back up arrived.
I arrived, letting dispatch (and my back up) know I was on the scene. Now, I found over the years that some of the most dangerous places in the community were the Emergency Rooms of the three hospitals in our city. Add to that, the other hospitals in Manchester serviced all of the surrounding communities, so our problems not only came from city residents, but they were often caused by patients who, for whatever reason were brought to the Manchester hospitals from the surrounding towns by either ambulance or police, and then left there.
Drunks, combative or otherwise, people having mental health issues, drug seekers, for any number of reasons were brought to the Manchester hospitals by out of town cops or their Fire Departments because those communities didn’t have hospitals. Once admitted to the ER, the out of town cops usually left their problems in the care of those ERs and therefore, many of those patients then became our problems, if and when they started to act up. That was true for the VA as well, because that hospital serves veterans from even a larger surrounding area, from Massachusetts to Vermont and everywhere in between. So it goes without saying that we spent a-lot of time responding to the ERs in our city and we fought with combatant patients on a regular basis.
At the Va, I was regularly confronted with particularly surly Veterans that were at their wits end, unhappy with what the VA would do for them, or more often what they wouldn’t do. When they didn’t get what they felt they needed for what they believed was entitled to them, or what they earned having served in the military, they often became loud, boisterous and sadly, confrontational and violent. Many of these veterans were struggling with severe mental health challenges, or they were homeless, often both. To add to problems, the medical / military world hadn’t discovered the effects of Traumatic Brain Injuries at that time, and treatment for PTSD was in the early stages, especially for Veterans. The last thing I ever wanted to do was arrest any Veteran whom I had contact with, especially the ones that were struggling with these issues. Unfortunately, often I had to do just that.
On that night, “upon arrival” (as I usually started my police reports) I found the patient in question sitting in a wheel chair inside the vestibule to the entrance to the emergency room. There were nurses present, and the guy in the wheel chair was cursing up a storm loudly telling the staff what he thought of them and the VA in general. The language he was using was pretty bad, and his behavior, was clearly disrupting the normal operation of the ER. His behavior that night, especially in the hospital was one of the reasons why the Disorderly Conduct statute had been written and was on the books. He was clearly, by definition, causing a breach of the peace.
The medical staff briefed me. They told me that this patient showed up often, demanded services that they could not provide or they felt he didn’t need. His visits always ended with his refusing to leave, loud shouting matches, threats and ultimately the police forcing him to leave the property, one way or another.
At that point, all the staff walked away and left me with their unhappy client. Although he was seated in the wheel chair, I learned from the staff that the patient (who was already well on his way to the MPD lock up for the night) at times was able to stand behind the wheel chair and push it, using it as a walker and other times he used his legs to move himself around in the chair. In other words, although he had mobility problems, he wasn’t confined to a wheel chair 24 / 7, as I was about to find out.
I started to try to calm the guy, introducing myself to him, asking for his first name, all the stuff you try to do to get someone a bit calmed down and establish a rapport of sorts so he could be reasoned with. Once I got him to talk with me, I would then see if I could help him with whatever his problem was at that moment. In this case, that didn’t work. He wasn’t having any of it. The little I did get out of him, was that the VA won’t help him, and he wasn’t leaving until they did. After a short time, I realized there’d be no reasoning with this guy tonight. I spoke further with the doctor on duty. The doctor said he had been seen, medically cleared, discharged and they wanted him removed from their property. Pretty common problem, really.
I went back to the guy tried again to get him a bit calmer, but there was no reasoning with him. I calmly but respectfully explained to him that the staff ordered him off the property and he had to leave. He said he wasn’t going anywhere. I told him that if he didn’t leave, I was going to have to arrest him, and I certainly didn’t want do that. But I told him in no uncertain terms, if he behavior didn’t cease he was getting locked up. After a few minutes, I knew I wasn’t getting anywhere with him. So, at that point, I made the my first mistake of the night.
I reached down as I talked and tried to grab onto the arm rest of the wheel chair and at least steer him outside into the parking lot do as not to keep disturbing the staff and patents. At that point, as I bent down, the guy struck me in my face by punching full force me with his right hand. It was quite a round house and it caught me completely off guard. I stumbled backwards, backpedaling, trying my best not to fall on my ass. I definitely saw stars, and I felt fortunate that he didn’t knock me out.
As I fought for my balance and to stay on my feet, (I was like a drunken sot) I felt and saw blood spurting from my mouth, onto my arms and hands, down my chest and onto the floor. I think for the moment I was truly in shock. I never saw that coming.
As my vision stated to clear, the guy was still in his wheel chair but he took a boxing position turning his chair towards me ready to throw another punch if I came within range. It was apparent he was willing and ready to hurt me any way he could. He was certainly indicating he was not done and not going without a fight. Well, at that point, I lunged at him and tried to grab a wrist to place a handcuff on, but I found that was a lot harder than you would think. All I accomplished was that chair fell over onto it’s side and all three of us (Him, Me and the chair) ended up in pile on the floor. “F—-this” I thought. Now the real fight was on!
I tried to roll him over and found myself on top of him. He was doing a pretty good job of defending himself, and I started to throw a few jabs at him while at the same time trying to fend off his blows. My pokes at him with my weak-side or left hand were having absolutely no effect on him. I had a pair of handcuffs in my right hand, which left me only one hand to both defend myself from his blows, and at the same time try to restrain him. Wheelchair or not, I was going to have to overpower him by force in order to arrest him. I remember that he was strong as hell. I can only imagine what a sight it must have been with me and the fighting wheelchair guy going at it with the wheel chair tipped over on it’s side. To make matters worse, no one was there when I got punched, but now several persons came to watch me roll around the floor with this quasi disabled, soon to be my prisoner, individual.
It was at that time my back up arrived. I don’t know what had taken him so long, nor do I know why I never saw a VA cop (I silently cursed them as well) that evening, but my back up took one look at what was going on, apparently was mortified at what he saw and yelled “Marty! What are you doing?” At which time he grabbed me from behind and forcibly pulled me off of the person I was trying to arrest.
When I turned to ask him WTF he was doing, he must have seen my bloody face for the first time. He appeared to be even more shocked and cried out “Marty, what the hell happened?” I was in no mood for explanations and I was pissed that he pulled me away from the guy. I tried to say ”what does it look like?” but I can only imagine the sound that came out of my split, bleeding and swelling mouth was something that must have sounded like the incoherent noises that Ralphy’s father used to make when he strung several curses together in the movie The Christmas Story! I always remember Ralph’s father screaming out something that sounded like “nuttafinger” (accent on the last syllable) in a high pitched voice when his lamp fell apart. I imagine my answer to my back up that night sounded similar to that. I turned back to my suspect who was trying to scamper away, half crawling and half dragging himself along the floor. He reminded me of a chimpanzee using his arms to scamper across the floor of some jungle fleeing a predator.
“HELL NO!” I thought. “You’re not going anywhere” as I pulled loose from my backup and flung myself back onto this fellow’s legs who suddenly NOW decided he wanted to leave. Sadly for him, that train had long left the station.
At some point during this struggle, I was able to pull out my OC spray and I sprayed the guy. It had no effect on him, which is not unusual, but it burned the hell out of my eyes, lungs and open cuts. However, it had plenty of effect on some near-by VA employees as they rushed past the three of us. They fled into the night all the while coughing, choking yelling and cursing.
Even with another cop to help, the struggle continued and at one point the cop I was with also sprayed him. Eventually, after what seemed to be an unending battle, we got the suspect subdued, handcuffed and I called for the wagon.
I was a mess, we all were, but from what I could tell I was the only one of the three of us that got hurt. I was out of breath, and my eyes and lungs were burning from the OC spray, and like the employees who fled, the other cop and I were both coughing and choking. While all this was going on, I didn’t know whether to be embarrassed, or to laugh, or what. The time for keeping or trying to retain my “Police Composure” was long past. I was hurting in several different ways, and the fact that a guy in a wheelchair had almost gotten the best of me didn’t help me feel any better.
Thankfully, the wagon showed up pretty quickly, and I turned the guy over to them. He started to fight and resist the wagon guys, even though he was in handcuffs. The wagon guys had to push and drag the guy, but I could see he could still walk somewhat on his own. Apparently, when he was done with me, I was in worse shape than he was!
My prisoner was then loaded into the back of the wagon, as was the department SOP, they had to sit him on the bench and secure him with a seatbelt (always a dicey task with a combative prisoner) for the ride to the station. At that point, the fun started again. Not that it ever stopped, mind you. As I stood and tried to get my composure, as well as catch my breath, I heard a whole lot of yelling and banging coming from within the wagon. I could actually see the box part of the wagon swaying back and forth like it was being blown around in a wind storm! Another fight was on. Later, I learned that the guy was fighting, and kicking the cops the whole time and they sprayed him with OC, which would have been a third time OC was deployed on him. Every cop that uses OC spray has to complete a Use of Force report outlining the situation and reasons justifying it’s use. Not only that, but the cop that sprayed someone during an arrest, had to then decontaminate him before they could be booked. The paperwork, the bane of the street cop, was sure starting to pile up on this one!
After a few minutes of this, one of the wagon guys comes out of the back of the wagon, huffing and puffing, swearing. He slammed the rear doors to the wagon closed, and I pointed out to him that the nearby wheel chair belonged to the prisoner. Much to my amazement, the wagon cop walked over, picked up the wheel chair with two hands. grasping it by each handle and after spinning around a couple of times with the chair like a discus thrower at a track meet, finally released it and the chair went flying into the nearby trees and bushes. I thought then that if my high school track coach (Yes Mr. Hall, I’m talking about you!) had seen this performance, he would have tried to recruit that cop onto his team! At that point I didn’t give a damn about the guy I arrested, the wheelchair or anything else other than my mouth.
One or two kind nurses took pity on me they tried to clean me up. Others raised an eyebrow or two after seeing two cops rolling around the ground with what they thought was a wheelchair confined veteran. It was then that I discovered whenever I opened or closed my mouth my jaw was actually clicking! I thought I was heading for stitches and had broken my jaw! I had seen people with fractured jaws, and how broken jaws were treated, and the possibility of having my jaws wired closed and sipping Hi C and tomato soup through a straw for the next several months wasn’t very appealing.
Soon wagon departed with my prisoner (they were clearly annoyed that I arrested this guy and now they have to deal with him) but I had to stay around for a few minutes to get info from any witnesses as well as the person who called the police, and the reasons why. Because I was still at the VA, I found out later that the wagon guys had tried to book him in my absence, but he fought the entire time. Before I could get back to the station, and then to the hospital, the shift commander called me in. I cleared the hospital and the radio then answered with the following message dreaded message “See the OIC!” I knew that was trouble. The OIC never called you in to say hello. When I arrived, the captain was apparently not very impressed with my injuries. I mean, I expected at least a little sympathy. Not likely.
The interrogation started without any preliminaries. “WHY DID YOU BRING THIS ASSHOLE IN? WHAT’S HE CHARGED WITH? HE’S ACTING LIKE AN ASSHOLE. I WANT YOU TO WRITE A SUMMONS FOR WHATEVER YOU CHARGED HIM WITH AND I WANT HIM OUT OF HERE! NOW!
Imagine, I thought, a prisoner thrown out of jail by being assaultive and acting like a shit bag. That was a new one on me. I was angry but I kept my cool and tried to explain, respectfully, what had happened and why I arrested him and the guy wouldn’t go anywhere, not to mention he assaulted me. The Captain didn’t seem to care. All he cared about was getting rid of this jerk. At one point the captain declared that the guy is a mental case and needed a hospital, not our cell block. My mouth and jaw ached as I started to loose my patience with my the Shift Commander.
I pointed out that he was already ready at a hospital and they threw him out! As I got angrier I asked him why the hell did he think I was up there (at the VA) in the first place? I didn’t go up there on my own. I didn’t snatch the guy off the street. I reminded him that the VA called the police and requested our presence. I was sent up there on a call. The Captain was nonplussed, and continued to chew me out. He ordered me to write a summons. I had charged the guy with criminal trespass, resisting arrest, assault on a police officer, and disorderly conduct. Normally, at least back then, one would have to post bail to get released from jail. Not this guy. All the captain cared about was he wanted this guy out, and he was pissed at me for bringing him in, in the first place. He didn’t want any liability or problems. As my police career went on, I came to believe that many of the higher ranking administrators and senior ranking officers had been away from working the street for such a long time they forget what it’s like, and the decisions you have to make. Many (not all) lose appreciation for what goes on out on the street as their careers progress.
At the end of my ass chewing, the Captain asked me what I did with the wheelchair. What did I do with the wheelchair? Now I knew damned well what had happened to the wheelchair. I thought a moment. I really didn’t want to say that officer so and so threw it into the woods. On the other hand, I certainly wasn’t going to lie to my boss. Not for that officer or for any other cop. I simply told the captain that if I were him, I’d ask the Wagon guys. He growled something at me as he threw me out of his office. I went over to start writing my summons.
A few minutes later I heard dispatch calling in the wagon, telling them to see the OIC (Officer in Charge, or Shift commander) I shook my head sadly, with a little empathy for the wagon cops, I figured they were in for an ass chewing or more. I left my summons with the booking officer and headed to the hospital to get checked out. I went to the ER at Catholic Medical Center that night I had to go through all the red tape when a cop gets hurt on the job. That would include questions like “What could you have done to avoid this injury?” or “ What could you have done to de-escalate the situation?” I suppose I could have stopped at Dunkins on the way to the call for a donut and hope that the problem had been solved before I arrived, but the bosses really didn’t care for my sarcasm. Nevertheless, I was still pretty angry at that point, but all I did was get on the air and tell Dispatch I was going to the ER to get checked out. A sergeant did show up to check on me (Yay!) but there was a ton of paperwork that needed to get filled out. Plus my normal police report and the use of force report still had to be competed. Turned out I needed neither stitches nor was my jaw broken. But I looked a mess! Lips swollen like balloons, blood all over my dark uniform and white T-Shirt, and my jaw ached and it clacked whenever I tried to speak. I think my wife was pretty surprised at my appearance when I showed up at home that morning. For my part, I was afraid that everyone who saw me ( cops, civilians and family) would assume I got my ass kicked at work.
Later I found out that when the wagon guys tried to get the guy out of the wagon, he continued to kick and resist, and they sprayed him again in the process, so there were other charges on this guy as well. That would be the fourth time he got sprayed with OC that night. Eventually, after they did whatever they did with him at the station, the put him in his wheelchair, served him my summons (after the OIC sent the wagon back to get the wheel chair telling them they’d better find it and not bother to come back without it) opened the sally port and half wheeled and half shoved the guy out onto Manchester St. They said few not very nice good byes which included telling him to go F himself. He was last seen wheeling himself down the middle of Manchester Street into the darkness to who knows where. I never went to court on him. I figured his lawyer must have pled the case to something insignificant and I never heard of him or about him again. It was probably better that I never had to testify in open court about being beaten up by a guy in a wheelchair and all that followed.
As for me, all I managed to accomplish was that I pissed off just about everyone I had contact with that night. The cop who backed me up, the staff at the VA hospital, the wagon guys, the inside guys at the station, and not to mention the Captain. What the hell? All I did was my job. And, I got rid of the guy for the VA which was what they called for in the first place. In the end all I got out of it was a shitload of crap, maybe a sick day to nurse my wounds (after all who wants a cop to show up at their house who looks like he got the crap kicked out of him by the last person he dealt with) and a trip to a different emergency room. I didn’t even get the court time…